Composite-bodied public buses could appear on American streets by the end of this year, even as the California company producing them prepares to expand the process to Europe. North American Bus Industries has contracts in hand to deliver up to 99 of the vehicles to Santa Monica, Calif., and Phoenix, with the first deliveries in Santa Monica expected no later than first quarter of 2001.
Phoenix is set to roll out its buses in the middle of next year.
NABI is wrapping up federally required studies on the models now, running laboratory tests of up to 500,000 road miles on the vehicles, said Bill Coryell, the company's vice president of sales.
The Moorpark, Calif.-based company also has purchased Optare Holdings Ltd. of Leeds, England, to gain a foothold in Europe.
"We have been looking to take this composite technology to other markets," Coryell said in a Feb. 8 telephone interview.
"We examined the idea of making bodies for other bus builders through strategic alliances, but that looked less appealing than making our own buses and selling them overseas. We needed to acquire a company with marketing inroads already in place."
The deal, worth $35.2 million including assumed debt, buys NABI a business that sold 395 buses last year. NABI sold about 500 transit buses in 1999.
Together the two businesses anticipate annual sales of more than $275 million, Coryell said.
NABI's "CompoBus" has a glass-fiber-reinforced, vinyl ester resin laminate body produced with the proprietary Seemann Composite Resin Infusion Molding Process. The shell for the bus is fabricated by TPI Composites Inc. of Warren, R.I.
The 40-foot, 40-passenger bus weighs 7,000 pounds less than a comparable metal-clad vehicle, Coryell said. That weight savings has allowed the company to push through two innovations: adding the equipment needed to offer alternative fuel systems and lengthening the bus by 5 feet. That adds enough room for another eight seated and four standing passengers.
"It's essentially the same operating costs as a 40-foot bus, but the cost per passenger goes down and, voila, you save money," Coryell said.
That extra elbow room was a major selling point for the city of Phoenix. Its Valley Metro transit system carries more than 30 million people annually, and anywhere between 125,000 and 140,000 on an average weekday, said Neal Manskey, public transit director.
"At our peak hours, we're at 104 percent of seated load," he said. "We carry a lot of standing [passengers], and they're not happy with it."
The system's 400 traditional buses can seat up to 38 passengers.
"It's a little bit of an experiment," Manskey said.
Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus transit system has three 26-foot, electric-powered, plastic-bodied buses in its fleet. The 37 40-foot NABI vehicles represent the first in their 165-bus fleet powered by liquid natural gas. The city also has an option to buy another 22 vehicles.
"The weight savings is a real plus, because it should lower our operating expenses," said Roy Neva, manager of facilities, maintenance and vehicle engineering for Big Blue Bus. "The real question is how the [composite] will hold up in the long run.
"I know they've done the tests on the track on in the lab, but there are things you run up on in the streets you don't get in the lab."
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is about to start seeking out manufacturers for its composite-bodied bus concept, the Advanced Technology Transit Bus.
The transit system teamed up with military aircraft specialist Northrop Grumman Corp. of Los Angeles to create the ATTB, which combines plastics with a hybrid power system.
"The goals and objectives are very high and very advanced, to look for a low-floor, lower-weight and `green' bus," said project manager Eck Chaiboonma. "When they first started this, everybody thought it wasn't achievable."
The transportation system will send out bid information within the next six to eight weeks to bus manufacturers in search of someone who can begin building the vehicles, he said. His office also will forward information from processors able to supply composites for the project.
"A lot of them have said they're interested in producing the ATTB," Chaiboonma said. "It's one thing to talk the talk and another thing whether they're seriously interested in it."